Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy (Jan. 7, 2018)
In Matthew’s story some folks show up late. There is no criticism of the late-comers. Some cultures have no category for late. I am glad the magi made it: better late than never. Other cultures have an intense relationship with time. I played baseball for a coach who believed that 5 minutes early was late for practice. One day someone took his watch off his desk and moved it back 10 minutes. It took him about a week to figure out what someone, who will remain anonymous to protect the guilty, had done. We ran a lot of laps.
The culture of Mary and Joseph must have not been like my coach. Even though God has given us all the time in the world to do all that God requires of us, we have allowed Time to be a tyrant and fill our lives with stress. Lakoff and Johnson, philosophers not a pharmaceutical company, tell us that we live by certain everyday metaphors and one of the biggest is TIME IS MONEY. That’s why time lords it over our lives. An entire industry thrives on the simple idea of getting us where we need to be on time. Time, an artificial entity, controls our lives. Time, is a secular concept, that we invented and it distracts us from what God intends for us – lives of patient joy and suffering. What would you do with an extra day every week? Watch more bad movies. Play games on the phone. Sleep longer. Talk about being bored. We need a new concept of time. The Bible has the word for us: KAIROS. It means the right time, the opportune time, the moment in time when we are most ourselves and most capable of serving the common good. KAIROS time is patient time opposed to CHRONOS THE GOD THAT RUNS OUR LIVES. The wise men arrived on time according to the Bible’s clock.
By our watches, our calendars, the wise men were late. Matthew tells us: “On entering the house, the [magi] saw the child with Mary his mother.” I’m pretty sure you heard that: THE HOUSE not THE MANGER. I am being playful with the text, but I am struck by saying, “The wise people are in the house.” Our tradition tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a stable, but Matthew says the strangers entered the house. THE WISE MEN ARE IN THE HOUSE! (IT IS ALWAYS MY PRAYER THAT THE CHURCH HOUSE WILL BE FILLED WITH WISE WOMEN AND MEN!) Mary and Joseph are back home in Nazareth. I am intrigued by one phenomenon: wherever the baby went, the star followed. The star followed the baby; the magi followed the star, and there was the baby.
This is why the Church insists having Christmas last for at least two weeks. The season is called Christmastide. The church asks us to pause and linger with the movable feast that has set up shop in Nazareth, to sit with the magi and to follow the baby there and do some more reflection on the meaning of Christmas before we dive ears-pinned-back into the hectic traffic of the New Year.
Who are these latecomers? Tradition tells us there were 3 magi but Matthew never says how many. Matthew doesn’t say they are wise; he says they are magi and the word means magicians. Matthew doesn’t say they were kings. We probably labeled the wise men as kings because we like the idea that the kings would come to worship the king of kings – our Jesus. He names 3 gifts not “We Three Kings of Orient.” Most likely they were from Iraq or Iran. That offers an interesting twist on the current treatment of Iranians and Iraqis in the land of freedom.
In Matthew’s story there are no Christians because everyone is still trying to find their way. WE ARE ALWAYS TRYING TO FIND OUR WAY! The magi represent all of humanity searching for the meaning of life. Here are these secular types looking for the meaning of life in a child named Jesus.
It sounds rather quaint because these days it seems almost no one is looking for the meaning of life in Jesus. In fact Jesus has a bad reputation in the secular world and people are pursuing meaning in all kinds of places and from all kinds of gods. The great god Mammon dominates our culture and the high priests of Mammon, the advertisers, even use religious language to coax us into buying more stuff so we have to rent more storage space. Love makes a Subaru. Give Good says Starbucks. An insurance company is peddling insurance on the basis of the Golden Rule. The language is theological but there’s no saving theology there. Folks are out there looking for love in all the wrong places and from all the wrong gods.
Some of us are late to the party because the search for truth has been so tedious. There are those who find the search for truth too difficult and rather than strain the brain, they give up and accept whatever is floating on the surface. They lose their sense of curiosity and swallow whole incredulous ideas that are not true. In Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Helena, there’s a tribute to the magi: “You are my special patrons, and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth . . .”(p. 12).
The wise people remind us that we are not as smart as we think we are and that we should be reticent about saying more than we know. Someone has suggested that we want the Bible to be a Google search engine that answers all our questions. Instead we get complexity, ambiguity, contradictions, bits of light here and there, and an invitation to keep seeking, searching, and knocking. What if the journey is about faithful searching and not idolatrous certainty? After all there are no grounds for theological certainty for any of us. We argue over the age of the earth but we were not there to witness it. We argue over issues with more possible answers than our simple binary minds will admit. We should be less inclined to spout out our alleged certainties when truth is so elusive, so complex, and so difficult to discover. Did not Jesus himself warn us that finding the pearl wisdom would cost us everything that we have?
Some of you may plot your life of faith on a straight line from Sunday school lessons to grown-up understanding. In the short story, “This is the Only Time I Will Tell It,” the narrator muses that his wife sleeps simply through the nights like a Christian and prays over sins too small for a man like Adam or me to notice. He says, “You can’t make Ruby see anything. She jumps from Genesis 1 to Luke 2 in a breath, and all the heathen before and since those times pass through her mind in some kind of blur, without counting. I see their one-by-one breakable faces, so much like mine. Waking many a night, I have laid furious in my own bed, certain I could have run the whole thing with some speed and a lot more kindness.”
I have never been at home among the certain. Oh, I tried, Lord knows I tried. For years I did what they told me to do, believed what they told me to believe. I tried to force people into salvation with those long tortured hymns of invitation. I cast out a demon, even tried to speak in tongues. It didn’t take. I attended all the denominational gatherings, faithfully but never happily. I endured long prayer meetings with praying preachers whose prayers had no end. Evangelist Dwight Moody, of Illinois fame, once said at a revival while a brother kept praying and praying, “Let’s sing a song while our brother finishes his prayer.” None of it took for me. I don’t wish to take away the certainties that many of you depend on, but I do want to offer a ray of hope and light to the natural-born skeptics, the curious, the questioning spirits, even the agnostics among us. I am not interested in you believing 21 impossible things before breakfast. I am interested in helping you find your way through the darkness that others call light
Others among us plot a meandering trail of intersecting roads and dead ends and aimless searches and wilderness sojourns and dark valleys and caves with dark shadows. Paul Theroux in his book Deep South says, “The travel book is about struggling to a destination.” The Bible is a travel book. It is the story of God and the story of humans seeking, looking for God. The magi were on the right track. And that justifies labeling them as wise men. They must have realized that wisdom lies in the most unexpected places.
I am comforted by the simple affirmation that the wise people were in the house. That’s the way it should be. It is the church’s shame that the university and the church divorced. It’s our fault. The university sued for divorce on the grounds of mental cruelty and won. The church provided the incubator for what became Western Science and now we find millions of American Christians treating science like scum and swearing it is of the devil. If you ever want to read a piece of trashy literature, you should read Ken Ham’s attack on evolution. To hear Ken tell it evolution has caused every known disaster in this universe. In Ken’s mind if something goes wrong, the reason is evolution. It is the height of absurdity for the church to be anti-science and anti-intellectual. How sad that for so many evangelical churches it has come to pass in these days that wisdom has left the house. Mark Noll investigated the evangelical mind in his book by that title and said, “The problem with the evangelical mind is that it doesn’t have one.”
The theological truth of the story lies in the attribution that the magi were wise. The wise men showed up just in time as reminder that the way to God is through worship, insight, wisdom, practical living, the virtues, and wisdom. In our world, theology is considered the theological justification of the faith rather than the practice of Christian faith. No wonder we fight over beliefs rather than knowing and loving God – over being good persons who do good all the time. Once theologians taught that we flourished by knowing and loving God. It is time for the church to bring wisdom back from exile
We should have seen it coming, but the separation of faith from knowledge, developed over many centuries. To get our bearings, let’s survey the damage. The university divorced the church. Science usurped the throne and now wears the capital S as if science is super discipline. A full scale intellectual attack was launched against the wisdom of the church – Locke, Hume, and Kant among the leaders. The church dropped the ancient wisdom and went about the task of trying to prove the faith on the basis of the new playbook developed by skeptics. We are so wrapped up in the need to be right, to intellectually justify our beliefs, that we have lost the wisdom of the ages. Maybe you have been imprisoned by the leftover influence of Locke or have spent too many years breathing the noxious fumes of Hume or maybe you have been knocked out by Kant’s separation of reason and faith. It is time to be skeptical about the skeptics.
Matthew says they these foreigners are the first people to see who Jesus is and worship him. Isn’t that just like God? No nation needs lessons in humility more than the United States of American. We have such a superior attitude. We actually think that we possess a righteousness that other nations lack. We are an arrogant people when it comes to faith and God. Look in the Bible at how God surprises the high and mighty, the so-called righteous ones. When Israel entered the Promised Land, after wasting forty years in unfaithful living, the first person to swear faith in God was not an Israelite but a Jericho whore named Rahab. When God needed a warrior to take down the giant Goliath, it was a mere child with a slingshot and three stones. And how can we miss that the one person willing to do whatever it takes to provide health care was a Samaritan? And the first people to see who Jesus is and worship him were some wise guys from Iran. They may have been astrologers. Did you hear the ESPN announcer in one bowl game say that a football player had a double major, physics and astrology. I’m sure he meant to say astronomy and I prefer to think the wise people were astronomers, scientists. And the wisest thing about the wise guys? They didn’t think they knew it all. They kept searching. And looking. And they were never discouraged. It is the essence of science that it keeps plugging along on perspiration more than inspiration. Look at the story. At first, they didn’t know who the Messiah was for sure. They didn’t know the Bible. The chief priests and scribes had to look it for them in the prophet Isaiah. But the wise men keep searching. Let it be said around here, “The wise people are in the house.”
Do you hear the Good News in all of this? The church can’t live without wisdom. A church without wisdom can die or retire. Maybe all those male-dominated churches struggle with accepting the need for wisdom because wisdom in Proverbs is a woman and Holy Spirit is feminine in the Bible. And wisdom equates here with loving and knowing God. The magi remind us of our constant need to return to the questions of human flourishing, happiness, and even goodness. The church can’t live without wisdom – and I mean the wisdom that worships and gives, gives and worships. It is knowing and loving God that leads to wisdom. Knowing and loving God is the best choice for forming excellent character and promoting genuine happiness. The church needs to get her wisdom back. It’s not Baptist to be anti-intellectual, to squelch the search for truth wherever it leads. The early Baptist mantra was “more light” and today it seems all we are getting is more smoke. “The wise people are in the house.”
I expect there are some of you here this morning have found the search for the truth tedious and difficult. But here in this house, you can kneel and worship and find that wisdom lies in knowing God and loving God. By loving God we come to know God. When you stumble with belief, practice the Christian life. “The wise people are in the house.”